A certain gene produces more of a longevity- and cognition-benefitting hormone.     Photo: Ingram Publishing/Thinkstock

The Young and Smart Gene

Anti-aging gene also aids cognition

A gene known for its anti-aging effects also benefits the brain, according to a new study published in the journal Cell Reports. Variants of the gene could help scientists to develop treatments to improve memory and learning.

Patients with a variant of the gene produce more of a hormone called klotho—named for the Fate from Greek mythology who spun the thread of life—and typically enjoy longer lives. This recent study, however, suggests that the hormone also benefits cognition, and not just among the elderly.

"Based on what was known about klotho, we expected it to affect the brain by changing the aging process," said the study's director and UC-San Francisco professor Lennart Mucke. "But this is not what we found."

Mucke put their results gently—the scientists' hypothesis was totally wrong. The study found that rather than reducing cognitive decline, high levels of klotho had relatively little effect on this type of health.

That's where the research got interesting: Klotho, known for its anti-aging properties, appeared to positively affect cognition throughout life. The scientists set out to find ways to prevent the brain from aging and ended up finding a hormone that makes people plain smarter.

"The beauty of this study is that the finding gives us another place to look, another path to take as we try to determine targets for the development of drugs," National Institue on Aging researcher Molly Wagster told NPR.

Still, mysteries about klotho will prevent related treatments from hitting the pharmaceutical market anytime soon. For starters, patients with one copy of the gene experienced improved cognition, while patients with two copies found their cognition impaired—and scientists aren't sure why. And while Klotho could lead to ways to treat Alzheimer's and other neurological diseases, researchers still aren't sure how diet, exercise, and brain activity influence the hormone's levels. Before we can develop substantial treatments, we'll have to understand klotho better.